SOUTHAMPTON, N.Y. – What’s the ultimate goal of the Walker Cup?
One question, two wildly different answers.
Here’s U.S. captain Jim Holtgrieve, on the eve of the biggest event in amateur golf: “It’s not about winning. It’s about building relationships, and that’s what these guys are going to do.”
OK, so what is more important to you, GB&I captain Nigel Edwards: winning or building relationships? After the laughter subsided, he didn’t hesitate.
“I’m here to win.”
Illuminating replies – especially at an event that has grown decidedly more competitive in the past two decades.
Sure, the overall record shows it is 34-8-1 in the Americans’ favor. But they have split the past 12 meetings, 6-6. Over that span the U.S. leads in total points, 155 1/2 to 136 1/2, though that statistic is skewed by the beatdowns in 1997 (18-6) and 1993 (19-5).
Great Britain and Ireland has won just twice on American soil in the 91-year history of this event, and not since 2001. But this 44th Walker Cup should be particularly intriguing, especially because a firm, fast and gusty National Golf Links could actually better suit the visitors.
After all, this GB&I squad boasts the winners of the U.S. Amateur, British Amateur, St. Andrews Links Trophy and the English Amateur. The other team members have previously won the Irish Amateur, European Amateur and qualified for the U.S. Open.
“You look at the success of this team,” Edwards said, “and this is a strong team.”
Two years ago, the U.S. team arrived at Royal Aberdeen as a heavy favorite with a lineup that featured Jordan Spieth, Harris English, Peter Uihlein, Patrick Cantlay and Russell Henley. The Americans still lost.
“Everybody was saying how strong the American team was,” Edwards said. “Well, with the population in America, it’s hard not to have a strong team, isn’t it?”
Good point, though this collection of U.S. talent isn’t as talented (or as deep) as the group that lost, 14-12, in the brutal Scottish winds.
That’s partly self-inflicted. Holtgrieve, who also captained the team in 2011, changed his approach in hopes of reversing his fortune in the biennial event. He scouted more players and spent more time on the road, taking in nine events in all. He studied chipping and putting statistics, knowing that National stressed those aspects of a player’s game.
His biggest shakeup, however, was the formation of his team. It was the 65-year-old Holtgrieve who initially suggested that the mid-amateurs should have a permanent place on the team. Last year he asked Nathan Smith, a four-time U.S. Mid-Am champ, whether he had any intentions of trying to make his third Walker Cup squad.
“I’m 34 years old,” Smith told him, “and I can’t compete in the tournaments that you need to compete in to make the Walker Cup. I’ve got a wife. I’ve got a job.”
That “hit home” for Holtgrieve, who played in the Walker Cup when he was 35. He vowed to lobby the USGA to consider putting two mid-ams on the team, hopeful that the rule would go into effect in 2015. Apparently, enough important people liked his suggestion, and here we are, two years early.
“It’s the right decision,” Holtgrieve said. “How do we grow the game? Only by winning? Come on.”
GB&I has no such mid-am mandate, and its oldest player, 27-year-old Neil Raymond, reached the quarterfinals of the recent U.S. Amateur and will turn pro later this month.
That’s OK with the USGA – or at least that’s what it says publicly – which is why the bluecoats have always made this two-day event about more than just golf for the 10 team members.
Sure, they have played nine practice rounds in the past three weeks at National, but players have also been treated to an itinerary that included three nights at the W Hotel in downtown NYC, a tour of the 9/11 memorial at Ground Zero, a trip to the U.S. Open tennis tournament (including a photo-op with Roger Federer), and a lunch and four-hole spin with former President George W. Bush.
But another U.S. loss this weekend would be a seminal moment for this event, especially with nearly all of the other significant Cups (Ryder, Solheim, Curtis), including this one, already filling up trophy cases across the pond.
“When we tee off, the goal will be to win,” assured Cal’s Michael Weaver. “When all this stuff is going on, yeah, it’s a lot of fun. But I guarantee you the main thing we’ll be focusing on tomorrow is trying to play our best to win.”
So maybe that is the ultimate goal of the Walker Cup, after all.